By Angela Harrison
BBC News Online education staff
The government has said it is convinced its plans to allow universities to raise tuition fees are the right way forward.
Alan Johnson: "Fees fair"
Rebel Labour backbenchers are threatening to block the plans when they come to the Commons in December.
They say fees of up to £3,000 a year would deter children from poorer families from going to university.
But the Higher Education minister, Alan Johnson, told the heads of the UK's universities the proposals were fair and would be brought in, "touch wood".
Mr Johnson said officials were "putting wet towels on heads" to try to help those from poorer families.
Up-front fees abolished
Under the government's proposals, universities would be able to vary tuition fees up to a limit of £3,000 a year, although these would only be paid once a student had graduated and was earning over £15,000 a year.
Those from the poorest families currently do not have to pay the existing flat rate tuition fees of £1,125 a year.
Means-tested £1,000 grants from 2004
Upfront tuition fees end 2006
Fees then rise to £3,000 a year
First £1,125 subsidised for poor
Payable from graduate salary of £15,000+
Zero-rated student loan up to £4,000 a year
New access regulator
Research funding for the elite
50% participation through foundation degrees
They will still be exempt from that amount and will benefit further from the new proposals by getting a maintenance grant of £1,000.
Mr Johnson said all those who were "serious" about higher education funding accepted the fact that the taxpayer could not be expected to contribute more than the £400 a year they were already putting in to universities.
Tuition had been free and grants had existed for most of the last 40 years but the gap between the proportion of middle class and working class youngsters going to university had actually widened, he said.
That was not the fault of universities.
"I use this to chide those who say that the only solution to getting youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds into higher education is free university education and generous grants."
Universities UK as a body has welcomed the plans, accepting that extra direct funding through taxation is not likely.
Its president, Professor Ivor Crewe, told its annual gathering, at the University of Warwick, that vice-chancellors recognised that students and parents were worried about debt.
But he said some fears were based on misconceptions.
The message had not got through that low-income students would only have to pay fees once they were "well-paid graduates".
But the government could do more to help the poorest students.
"The government should rationalise what has been called the dog's breakfast of existing special grants in order to increase the maintenance grant and to widen its eligibility.
"And it should reform the current loan system so that students are less dependent on expensive credit card and bank debt."
Concerns about poorer students were raised by university leaders from the conference floor.
Diana Green, the vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, said she was concerned about the "potential barrier" of debt aversion.
"The government should be making more money available for maintenance grants," she said.
But Mr Johnson replied: "We haven't got any more money to make maintenance grants higher but at some future time, of course we will continue to look at maintenance grants."
His department said later its position remained the same as in its response to the education select committee report on its plans.
This was that student support was being kept under review, but the most likely area for future movement was fee remission - that is, increasing the amount that poorer students are exempt.
The president of the National Union of Students, Mandy Telford, said: "Coming a day after the TUC unanimously condemned top-up fees and a poll showed that 80% of the general public oppose them, we are amazed the minister has chosen to show such contempt for the views of the majority.
"To talk about higher education as a market and students being forced to pay what a market dictates is an affront to those students who are already struggling by on a daily basis.
"To not understand why a working class 18 year old would be put off racking up a debt of £20,000-plus, further demonstrates just how wrong the government is on this issue."